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X-51A Wave Rider Test Flight Rockets into the Pacific

Written by on Thursday, August 16th, 2012

Earlier this week, I made a post about the X-51A Wave Rider, a hypersonic scramjet that was about to undergo its third test flight. Well, I don’t want to jump the gun or anything, but sources indicate that the test failed miserably. Though, you can accurately say that it is one of history’s most well-funded fireworks.

Wired’s Danger Room issued a tweet explaining that the X-51A Wave Rider lost control because of a fin issue, though they did not announce their source or provide confirmation that the rumor is true.

That seems like a shaky suspicious at best, but the Air Force elevated that rumor to the official story when they released a statement confirming the mission’s failed result. Danger Room also claims to be in contact with “an insider familiar with the test, who said a problem with a missile’s fin caused a loss of control before the engine could kick in.”

The Air Force launched the missile at some time between 10 and 11 a.m. over the Pacific yesterday. As intended, they released the missile from the bottom of a B-52 Stratofortress and sent it flying. A short 16 seconds after launch, however, the Air Force identified a problem with one of the fins. The missile broke apart a few seconds later, long before reaching the full rocket burn. It then plummeted into the ocean, probably terrifying a bunch of fish in the process.

These tests are getting more and more problematic for the USAF. They’re one-for-three with X-51A missile tests so far, which is shaking officials’ confidence in the program. They may have just sent a hefty chunk of the $300m X-51A Wave Rider total research budget into the bottom of the deep blue sea, but they seem determined to work out the kinks and get this hypersonic missile up and running. They’re already working on a fourth test missile, though there’s can i buy antibiotics in japan they’re having a little bit of trouble pulling together the cash for it.

On top of all that, a hypersonic missile represents the next stage in military warfare, kind of like the jump from the bow and arrow to gunpowder. One of the most reliable ways to nuke your opponent is to stick a warhead on the end of an ICBM and push the flashing red button. The big issue with ICBMs is that governments around the world have their noses pressed against a computer monitor, carefully watching for ICBM launches. Sending up an ICBM could inadvertently start a nuclear war, because enemies can’t sit around and twiddle their thumbs waiting to see whether or not the missile is aimed at them.

The X-51A would operate completely differently. Because of its tiny size, it would show up on enemy screens as a cruise missile, like the type that you launch in aerial dog fights. Seeing a little cruise missile blip might be alarming, but it wouldn’t trigger the same DEFCON status sparked by an ICBM launch.

Having a functional hypersonic missile would be great and all, but this most recent test has left the USAF in an awkward position. On the one hand, they’re on the verge of building one of the most fearsome weapons on Earth, one that would make every potential enemy think twice about starting a conflict. On the other hand, they can’t just keep dumping buckets of money into the Pacific Ocean. That’s going to make taxpayers and the politicians who allocate funds for the military peeved. So, what do you do? Try and try again, or cut your losses and work on something else? For now, at least, the USAF is sticking with it, but if the fourth test doesn’t go very well then Tuesday’s launch may have been the penultimate flight of the X-51A Wave Rider.

If you want advice about the world of military aviation, there’s no better people to turn to than men and women who have sat in the cockpit and flown some of the world’s most advanced aircraft. With over 50 current and ex-warfighters on call, Strike Fighter Consulting Inc. can give you access to up-to-date, first-hand technical and tactical expertise.

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